By Mark Guarino
Daily Herald Music Critic
There are two typical ways someone discovers classic pop music. The first is through an older sibling’s record collection, as shown in the film “Almost Famous.” The second is through late nights listening to the radio – proof is the countless songs praising the progressive AM radio formats of the ’60s and early ’70s. Andrew Bird had already graduated from Northwestern as a classical violinist, played in a hit-making jazz group, and recorded two of his own albums before he ever considered making pure pop music on his own. The reason? He never listened to it.
“I was as much in a vacuum as I could have been,” he said.
Now nearing age 30, Bird has made not just a simple pop album, but one that sounds galvanized by its naivete, bending back and forth between styles and unusual melodies and evened by a peculiar, but catchy, accents. Country harmonizing, jazz groove singing, blues rhythms, Latin beats and squawking rock guitars are heard on “The Swimming Hour” (Rykodisc), evidence of Bird’s eclectic past.
He was raised in Evanston and at age 4, started weekly violin lessons that led to the conservatory training that taught Bird to learn music primarily by ear.
“I was thankful, but I was never particularly happy,” he said.
At Northwestern, he began experimenting with different styles based on his exposure to jazz. Although funneled by his excitement, his relationship with his mentor was “an epic struggle.”
After college, Bird hooked up with the Chapel Hill swing group Squirrel Nut Zippers at the height of its popularity during the retro swing craze four years ago. That too, led to dissatisfaction. He watched the band shoot from obscurity to selling more than a million copies of their record, which forced them to hit the road to tour almost nonstop.
“It was pretty intense,” Bird remembered. “But there was no mystery to what happened there. I saw how the industry worked.”
He jumped ship and started working on two records under the band name of Bowl of Fire. But both were similar to the Zippers’ hot jazz style and even featured members of the band. But swing era music, largely criticized as novelty music, proved just another raze that was fading.
After years of playing in so many styles, he decided to concentrate on songwriting. He returned to Chicago and found himself surrounded by the city’s strong community of songwriters including the Handsome Family, Chris Mills and Neko Case.
“I felt like I was referencing other styles, from classical to jazz, and using them in a theatrical way,” he said. “But how far can you take the concept before it starts to take you down?”
Writing the first song on his new album (the snaky pop tune “Two Way Action”), Bird discovered he could free himself from the burden of too much conceptualizing by just saying things directly.
From there, he worked with two principles: “good melodies and good lyrics.” He says he realized pop is the noblest form of music for trying to grab someone in under four minutes.
“Some people may find pop music constricting, but I find it very liberating,” he said. “You just need to find a theme in there and that theme has to be very ear-catching. That’s the challenge.”